The boxing hall at the Karnail Singh Stadium, in the heart of old Delhi, is a far cry from the state-of-the-art Ali Bin Hamad Al Attiyah Arena in Doha. The walls are decaying, window panes broken and the boxing ring itself is uninspiring. It looks worn-out, and the floor of the ring is made of mattresses.
It’s peak afternoon and the acrid smell of sweat hangs in the air. Inside the ring, Shiva Thapa does not seem distracted by the surroundings. Dressed in a sauna suit to shed a few kilos and maintain his weight, the 21-year-old bantamweight boxer tip-toes in the ring, sparring with coach Chananda Kuttappa. It’s his last training session before departing for the World Championships, which begins on Tuesday, Thapa wants to make sure he goes through each of his drills once.
The youth Olympics medallist knows boxing with its new rules is as much about creating an impression on the judges as much as landing clean punches. But aggression isn’t something that comes naturally to Thapa. He is a counter-puncher, more in the defensive mould.
The practice bout is now mid-way through the final round and Devendro Singh, going through his cooling down exercises at the ringside, does not like what he’s seeing. He is opposite of what Thapa is. An aggressive power-puncher, he urges his teammate to go all out rather than just waiting for things to happen. Thapa hears the advice, and packs a punch so powerful Kuttappa, who isn’t wearing a mouth guard, starts bleeding.
Thapa offers to stop the fight but the coach wants to carry on and insists that he should continue showing the same aggression. In the final 20 seconds, Thapa lands four clean punches but in the process, he also gets hit thrice.
“That’s one area that hurts me always. When I am boxing close, landing punches and going aggressive, I don’t defend well. I tend to stand still, not moving enough so the opponent gets a chance to punch back again,” Thapa explains. “But as I try to bring in more aggression into my game, I’ll have to make some adjustments and deal with new challenges.”
If Thapa is trying to be more belligerent, another medal hope Devendro has been advised to tone down slightly on his aggression. “After the London Olympics, all my coaches told me to tighten my defence more and plan my bouts properly instead of going all out from the first bell. I need to protect myself more against boxers who are technically and defensively better than me,” Devendro admits.
The Manipuri reached the quarterfinals of the 2011 World Championships to qualify for the London Olympics. But the road to Rio for him, and other Indian boxers, won’t be so easy. With the international boxing association (AIBA) tweaking the qualifying rules, only 23 quotas will be up for grabs in Doha this week.
Tough road to Rio
In 2011, the World Championships offered 92 places for the 2012 Games. Majority of quotas this time are available via AIBA’s pro boxing championship and the World Series Boxing (both offering total of 63 Rio quotas).
None of the Indian boxers are a part of the two tournaments, mainly because of the ongoing mess within the federation. The boxers don’t want to talk about the federation politics although they admit a few more exposure tournaments would’ve helped them prepare much better for the World Championships.”We had a camp in Kazakhstan last month which was really helpful. But apart from that, there’s hardly been any exposure. So far, we have been sparring among ourselves at the camp and participated in an odd tournament or two,” Thapa says. “But we are happy with our preparation for the World Championships. It’s now down to how we execute our plans.”
The challenge for the boxers is enormous. Only the medallists at Doha will be assured of quota places for the Olympics and in the heavy and super-heavy weight categories, only the gold medal winners will be awarded Rio berths.
But Indian boxers have shone in adversity. At the Asian Championships last month, India won one silver and three bronze medals to finish fourth among 28 countries. Vikas Krishan, who replaces Vijender Singh in the middleweight, won the lone silver while Devendro, Thapa and Satish Kumar (+91kg) won bronze medals.
At the worlds, India’s hopes will rest on Krishan, Devendro and Thapa once again while Satish might find going tough in the super heavyweight, which will have a strong presence from Europe and the Americas.
The draw has been relatively kind to Indian puglists, except for Devendro. The 23-year-old Commonwealth Games silver medallist will open his campaign against England’s Harvey Horn in 49kg category on Tuesday.
The 20-year-old Horn is the current European Championship silver medallist. If Devendro manages to clear the first hurdle, then he will bump into reigning European champion Vasilli Egorov of Russia, who got a first round bye.
Despite the uphill task they face, Indian boxers are not intimidated. “Many times, when championships offer Olympic places, our focus is diluted. We become too desperate for a quota place. At least here we know that if we don’t win a medal, we won’t get a quota place. So the motivation to win a medal is doubled. Never mind what the draw is,” Devendro says.